The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

By Agatha Christie

Rating: 4 stars

I’m a fan of Christie in general but hadn’t read this one before. I really only picked it up because I was looking for new books and noticed this going for free on Kindle. I enjoyed it all the way through, as Christie does her usual whodunnit thing, with Poirot being wonderfully Poirot. The setting is also classically Christie, in a small English village, with a coterie of elderly spinsters running the local gossip network in an efficient and delightful way. Poirot laments the missing Captain Hastings (who has apparently moved to Argentina) several times throughout the book to his substitute, the village doctor, James Sheppard, who narrates the book.

And then we have that twist! Without dropping any spoilers, I was completely floored and did not see that coming. There’s a lot of layers of misdirection going on here and I thought it worked really well. I’d like to reread it at some point to see how it reads knowing the resolution. The end was interesting, being reminiscent of Murder on the Orient Express, with Poirot foregoing the legal process in favour of his own conscience. I’m still not sure how I feel about that. But it’s an excellent whodunnit with a great cast of characters and a twist I’ll be thinking about for days to come.

Book details

ISBN: 9782380378061

Central Station

By Lavie Tidhar

Rating: 5 stars

For me, books often fit into two moulds – either heavy plot driven where I skim the actual words in my excitement to find out what happens next, or slow and lyrical, where the plot is almost secondary to the language, which has to read slowly and savoured. For me, Ray Bradbury was a master of the latter form and whenever I find books of that type, it’s always to Bradbury that I compare them. And Central Station passes that test with aplomb. I was hooked within the first few pages and despite there not being much of a plot, that feeling stayed with me throughout.

In some ways, the book is a love letter to the great science fiction and writers of the 20th century. There’s references to CL Moore’s Shambleau; Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality of Mankind; Larry Niven’s Louis Wu and several others (and how many did I miss through not recognising the reference?). But the book is more than just nods to great writers of the past, it takes all those threads and weaves something beautiful from them. Central Station itself – a giant spaceport built between the cities of Tel Aviv and Jaffa – is a wonderful creation that will stick in the memory long after you put the book down.

The world-building is deft, slotted in between the glorious language as we explore the Station, the city and the characters who inhabit it. There’s Boris Chong, who’s returned from the Up and Out (itself such a Cordwainer Smith phrase) as his father is ill, with a sort of memory cancer; there’s Kranki, a lab-grown boy who’s more than the sum of his parts; and Carmel, a data vampire, drawn to Central Station by something she doesn’t understand. And that’s only a handful of the many characters that Tidhar makes us care about, in a fairly short book.

We see into their lives and how they cross and intersect both in the physical and the digital realms, through the ubiquitous network known simply as The Conversation. Everyone gets a node implanted at birth and it’s part of them as they grow. Those who don’t have one (like Miriam’s brother) are considered disabled, and lesser. Many things have changed in the future, but fear and distaste of those different to ourselves is still very much part of humanity and its digital descendants.

It’s not an entirely perfect book, I would have liked a stronger plot to weave these characters together, but I enjoyed my time spent with them all and would definitely add Central Station to my list of fictional megastructures to visit, given the opportunity.

Book details

ISBN: 9781616962142

Alif the Unseen

By G. Willow Wilson

Rating: 3 stars

When the grey-hat hacker who calls himself Alif, living in an unnamed city in an unnamed Emirate, comes into possession of a book called The Thousand and One Days, his life suddenly becomes far more exciting than he would like. He, and his childhood friend, Dina, find themselves on the run and enter into a world of shadowy State security agencies, djinn, hidden cities and quantum computing.

It took me nearly half the book before I started warming up to it. This is because (and I appreciate that this is a failing on my part) I have trouble with books where I dislike the characters, especially the protagonist. And Alif starts here as very unlikeable. Shallow, entitled and whiny, it’s not until he’s pulled out of his comfortable world and gets properly stuck into his Hero’s Journey that he starts to become tolerable, as the plot also starts to speed up.

A lot of this starts because the woman that Alif (thinks he) loves rejects him so rather than spending some time crying and then getting on with his life, he decides to build a surveillance system that will wipe him from her electronic life, so that she never has to encounter him again. Uh huh, that’s a normal way to process a breakup, sure.

As someone who writes software for a living, I always wince a bit when any sort of computing (especially hacking) happens in popular culture, as they inevitably get it hilariously wrong. But thinking of this as cyberpunk sort of eased the pain of that, since that’s supposed to all be metaphorical and I just sort of glazed over that.

One thing I did really like about this book was how it portrayed the messiness of revolutions. The way that idealism and mob rule are all tangled up and can’t be easily separated. And what do you do once you’ve started a revolution? Especially one where you can’t even steer it, never mind control it. That sense of powerlessness and things spinning out of control was nicely handled.

So an interesting book, and one that evokes the deep history and conflicted present of the Middle East. I struggled with this, and still don’t really understand what happened at the climax or what Farakhuaz was or how the magic computer was even supposed to metaphorically work. So this didn’t really work for me, but gets pulled up for its setting and the delicious writing.

Book details

ISBN: 9780857895691
Publisher: Corvus
Year of publication: 2013

Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora

By Zelda Knight

Rating: 4 stars

I’ve been making a conscious effort to try and extend my horizons when it comes to my reading, and this book was mentioned in a discussion between anthologists as a particularly good one. Having read it, it’s certainly not like anything I’ve read before. Coming from Africa and the African diaspora, including African Americans, it’s a collection as diverse as the continent it hails from. The first story, Trickin’ is the story of a trickster god who rises once a year to test his people. Then we have an old-fashioned robot story in Red_Bati in which a robot that used to be an old woman’s pet becomes part of a mining crew, but has an existential crisis when it’s damaged.

Probably the most harrowing story in the collection is The Unclean, in which a woman relates her life, passed from a father to a husband, treated as chattel, the birth and death of her child and the horror of when that unquiet child returns to haunt her. This was a difficult story to read, on several counts – the horror of the way that women were traded (not to mention the horror of the normality of it); the abuse; the death of the child; and more that goes into spoiler territory.

Convergence in Chorus Architecture had the feel of an ancient myth to me, almost a creation myth. I didn’t entirely follow the plot, but the tone and feel really drew me in. Clanfall: Death of Kings really didn’t feel like a complete story in its own right, but part of a larger piece of work. It was very violent, in a cartoony way that didn’t really have me caring all that much about the characters, but the worldbuilding was excellent. The final (and, I think, longest) story was Ife-Iyoku: The Tale of Imadeyunuagbon, set in a post-apocalyptic world, where the inhabitants of one hidden village in the heart of Africa gained powers that helped them survive. The people of Ife-Iyoku formed a highly patriarchal society, where survival and the continuation of the next generation is the greatest good. This story tells of what happens when that is threatened and when one young woman wants to exercise greater freedom.

Overall, a very good collection with many more hits than misses for me. One or two I just didn’t get, one or two were far too grim for me, but it’s a good collection indicating how the genre is thriving in a non-traditional habitat.

Book details

ISBN: 9781946024794

Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

By Robert C. O'Brien

Rating: 4 stars

This was a book that I’d loved as a child, and read several times, so it was with a little trepidation that I approached it as an adult, but my fears were mostly groundless. It’s been so long since I last read it that I couldn’t remember much of the plot, but the story of the widowed mouse Mrs Frisby and how she comes to associate with the rats that live in the farmer’s rosebush still holds up pretty well.

Reading as an adult in the 21st century, you do notice things: like how Mrs Frisby is the only major female character (yes, two of her children are girls, but they’re barely in it and their characterisations are limited to pretty much a single line: Teresa is the oldest and most responsible, Cynthia is the youngest and “over-fond of dancing”). The rats presumably have females amongst them, but other than Isabella, we never see any of them – they’re just described as “mothers” and it’s implied that they’re fond of the good things in life.

The story of the rats is still very exciting, though, from Nicodemus’ capture, to the experimentation in NIMH to their escape and finding the Toy Tinker. In between, we learn why the rats are willing to help Mrs Frisby in the first place and some of their philosophy. Personally, I’m leaning more towards Jenner’s side of the argument than Nicodemus – or, at least, I wouldn’t want to throw away everything and start completely from scratch.

Philosophical arguments notwithstanding, there’s a lot to enjoy here. It’s a story of kindness, of comradeship and of community. Recommended for children and adults alike.

Book details

ISBN: 9780141354927
Publisher: Puffin
Year of publication: 2014


By Susanna Clarke

Rating: 4 stars

The Beauty of the House is immesurable; its Kindness infinite. So believes Piranesi, who lives in the House – a vast labyrinth of Halls, with innumerable statues in the endless halls and the ocean in the basement. He lives here alone, except for The Other, and and always has, or so he believes. He lives a contented life, until the messages start to appear – there is someone new in the House, and this sets up a chain of events that leads to hidden truths being uncovered and relationships changed forever.

This is a slim volume, but it took me a while to get into it. The world of the House is dense and Clarke does throw you into the middle of it. The novel takes the form of journal entries of the narrator (the Other calls him Piranesi, but he’s not sure that that’s his name). The random capitalisation that the narrator throws in doesn’t help either. It takes a while to get into the flow of it.

But once you do find the rhythm of the book, it’s a joy to read. It’s lyrical, haunting and beautiful. I thoroughly enjoyed following the narrator on his personal journey of discovery of both himself, and the world around him. I can imagine that it’s a book that rewards rereading, and I’m definitely going to give it another go before too long.

Clarke certainly isn’t prolific, but a new novel from her is an event that’s worth the wait.

Book details

ISBN: 9781526622433
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Year of publication: 2021

Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children, #1)

By Seanan McGuire

Rating: 4 stars

Everyone talks about the kids who go away to magical lands and have adventures. Nobody asks what happens when they come back. Miss West understands though. She was one of those children, back in the day, and now she’s set up a school to help them try to reintegrate back into society, when often they want nothing more than to return to the worlds that spat them out. Nancy is one such girl, returned from the Halls of the Dead, and her parents can’t deal with how she’s changed, so they send her to Miss West’s school. But instead of the sanctuary she was expecting, she finds death and danger.

The Problem of Susan aside, nobody ever wonders about those who are ejected and can’t return to the places they come to think of as their true homes, and what that would do to them. Miss West does know, and she is kind and understanding. She tries to protect them, and prepare them – both for this world, and for what to do if they do get a chance to return.

This is a great book for diversity, with our protagonist making clear early on that she’s asexual (not aromantic), and one of the few close friends that she makes is a trans boy. It’s very much a book about being who you are, and being accepted (or not) for it. Children and teens are still children and teens. Some lash out because they’re hurting, others are just mean. McGuire paints a sympathetic portrait of a young woman who feels like she’s lost everything and wants desperately to get it back.

This is also a nicely standalone book, although it does a good job of worldbuilding, leaving lots of space to tell more stories (and, indeed, there are several more books in the series). A good execution of a great idea.

Book details

Year of publication: 2016

The System of the World (The Baroque Cycle, #3)

By Neal Stephenson

Rating: 4 stars

I never thought he’d pull it off, but in The System of the World, Neal Stephenson actually manages to craft a satisfying and enjoyable conclusion to the largest, most rambling work of fiction I’ve read in a very long time. Daniel Waterhouse had been summoned back to England in the first book by Princess Caroline, who we first meet when she’s a penniless refugee, and is helped out by Eliza. By this time, she’s about to become the Princess of Wales and the future queen of of the United Kingdom. This book tells the story of what Daniel gets up to upon his return.

Stephenson continues to be fascinated by economics, as much of this tale is the battle of wits between Sir Isaac Newton, master of the Royal Mint, and Jack Shaftoe, the most notorious forger in the kingdom. But thrust into that is also the Solomonic gold – an alchemical mystery that Newton is desperate to get his hands on. And this tension between modernity, in the shape of the new economics and technologies that are starting to come into the realm, and the ancient ideas will define the new system of the world that is being forged.

As The Confusion was Jack and Eliza’s book, so this is Daniel’s. The former do appear, but we mostly follow Daniel as he, much to his own bewilderment, grows to become a respected and powerful man, while trying to find out who’s trying to kill natural philosophers with time bombs and also to continue Leibniz and Wilkins’ work on a thinking engine.

To be honest, even after three very big books (the first of which really feels like a [very] extended prologue to the other two, since really not much happened but you needed to read it to be able to understand and enjoy the other two) I’m not sure how well I can describe, or, indeed, understand the themes of the book. Characters are a bit easier. I found Daniel and Jack very annoying in the first book, for different reasons. Over the next two, I’ve come to like and root for both of them, and Jack’s audacious heist against the Tower of London had some great moments in it. He’s grown and matured. The “imp of the perverse” that dogged him so much in the first book has been tamed, to some degree, by age and wisdom. Daniel mostly just wants to be left alone to get on with his research, but he keeps getting caught up in the plans of the great and powerful.

Eliza, by this stage, is widow, a duchess twice over and up to her elbows in matters of finance. She steps in to help finance some of the work that Daniel is involved with, and, indirectly this leads her to cross paths with Jack again, which leads to one of the more surreal epilogues. And yes, of course you didn’t think you were going to get just one epilogue, did you? There are, in fact, five of them, tying up various loose ends.

While pretty readable, the book isn’t free of bloat. While exciting in bits, for example, the heist went on too long and was a bit too complex for my taste. Stephenson certainly doesn’t skimp on his world-building (although I did mostly skim the descriptions of London).

This book finally has something in it to earn the label of speculative fiction that Stephenson claims for the trilogy. To say what would be a spoiler, but it’s a minor element and for the most part the book can be read as pure historical fiction..

So a challenging series, but ultimately rewarding in the end.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099463368
Publisher: Arrow
Year of publication: 2005


By Ted Chiang

Rating: 5 stars

Ted Chiang isn’t a prolific author, but that means that every new story is a big deal. This collects his most recent stories and it’s an astoundingly good collection. I try to avoid hyperbole for the most part, but this is one of the best set of stories that I’ve read in a very long time. Of the nine stories collected, six were either award-nominated or award-winners. That is an astonishing ratio and the stories really live up to it. They’re almost platonic ideals of science fiction: taking a single “what if? and running with it. What if there was a device that effectively made human memory perfect? What if young earth creationism was right after all? What if you could talk to other versions of yourself in parallel universes?

The title story, Exhalation is a discussion of thermodynamics and the ultimate end of the universe through the medium of air-powered sentient robots, one of whom auto-dissects himself in order to find out how his brain works. The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate is a wonderful story about time travel wrapped in a fable told in the style of the Arabian Nights. The Lifecycle of Software Objects is the longest work in the book. It’s a novella about raising an artificial intelligence. The story tells of next generation virtual pets some of whose owners get very attached to them, and keep them running for years, running into decades. In the notes at the end, Chiang notes that humans take constant interaction and 15-20 years before they become mature, why should that be different for AI? It’s a great story, tying the lives of the humans into that of the AIs that they’re raising. There’s a few short pieces as well, usually written for specific things, such as The Great Silence, a piece about the forthcoming extinction of parrots, with a killer last line that choked me right up.

A friend gave me her copy of Chiang’s previous collection, Stories of Your Life and Others because she felt that he wasn’t good with characters and characterisation. This is something I fundamentally disagree with (we didn’t quite fall out over it, and I’m glad I was able to give her copy of the book a good home), and this book has some wonderful characters. Ana, the protagonist of The Lifecycle of Software Objects is really interesting in her obsession; Dr Dorothea Morrell, the archaeologist in Omphalos, whose faith is tested; and most complex and interesting of all is Nat from Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom, someone who’s trying to leave her past behind her and whose brush with alternate universes help her come to terms with herself.

Chiang’s genius comes with teasing out the big questions of life, and presenting them in a thought-provoking and entertaining manner that will stay with you for a long time after you finish the story. Unreservedly recommended to any lover of literature and student of the human condition.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529014495

A Memory Called Empire (Teixcalaan, #1)

By Arkady Martine

Rating: 4 stars

It took me an embarrassingly long time to really get into this book, but that’s my fault, not the book’s. I was reading it at the same time as Ted Chiang’s truly astonishing Exhalation and I couldn’t stop thinking about that. And the new Becky Chambers novel had just turned up as well, and I was itching to read that too. But I eventually put those out of my mind and focussed on this, and I’m really glad that I gave it the attention that it deserved.

Mahit Dzmare is the new ambassador from a small, independent system to the mighty Teizcalaan empire. The problem is that nobody will admit that her predecessor was murdered and that she might be next. All this while keeping her own secrets and trying to protect her home from the ravenous jaws of the empire.

By the end, I really enjoyed this book. It’s not the story I was expecting, and it’s not one that I hear discussed very often. A major theme is the draw of the foreign, the empire next door. Teizcalaan is a cultural giant and all the young people from her station absorb its media and culture. Mahit especially so – it’s what makes her a good ambassador. This cultural imperialism and the seduction of the oh-so-civilised Teizcalaanli draw her like a moth to a flame.

This aspect of empire – the cultural imperialism that extends beyond the territorial borders – is a great thread, in amongst the intrigue and politics of palace life. There’s also a larger looming threat beyond the borders that threatens everyone, Teizcalaan and Lsel alike. That one is mostly kept to the background here, but I assume will come to the fore in the next book.

I really like Mahit as a character here. She’s a fish out of water, trying desperately to fit in while knowing that she can’t, but she’s not naive and when she’s given a chance to stop and think, which isn’t nearly as often as she’d like, she’s sharp as a tack. Her Teizcalaanli cultural liaison, Three Seagrass (the names within the empire are all like this, with a number and a random noun. I found it quite disconcerting to start with, but it just serves to be another reminder that the Teizcalaanli are alien) is also great. She’s clever, with a dry wit and is genuinely trying to help Mahit.

I’m struggling to place the influences on the Teizcalaan empire. The imperial bureaucracy and obsession with poetry and literature suggest a Chinese influence, but some of the names (“Teizcalaan”, for a start) suggest Aztec, as do some of the ceremonies, but that’s not a culture I know very much about.

Either way, there’s a compelling story here, that was a great read. A worthy Hugo-winner.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529001594
Publisher: Pan Macmillan Paperbacks
Year of publication: 2019

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